Inside Janet Jackson's Infamous Super Bowl Wardrobe Malfunction and Its Even More Complicated Aftermath

Are you ready for some wild news? It's been 20 years since Janet Jackson's bare breast was accidentally exposed to millions of viewers watching Super Bowl XXXVIII and everyone lost their s--t.

By Billy Nilles Feb 11, 2024 12:00 PMTags
Watch: Will Taylor Swift Attend the Super Bowl? Everything We Know!

Nine sixteenths of a second.

That's all it took for the world to come crashing down on Janet Jackson during her performance at the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show on Feb. 1, 2004. Nine sixteenths of a second. Sure, in that minuscule amount of time, the performer's bare breast had been exposed—inadvertently or otherwise—to the over 100 million people watching TV's biggest event by fellow performer Justin Timberlake and that's no small matter. But in the end, that's all it was—9/16ths of a second.

In the years since that fateful moment in Houston's Reliant Stadium, many questions remain.

Did Timberlake, who pulled at Jackson's leather bustier right as his hit song "Rock Your Body" reached its climactic "Bet I'll have you naked by the end of this song," exposing her right breast and its sunburst nipple shield as if on cue, pull away more fabric than he ought to have? And did MTV, who was handling production on the big show for their second year in a row, know more than they ever let on?

And how do Jessica Simpson, Nelly, Diddy, and Kid Rock—all of whom also took part in the "Choose or Lose"-themed show—feel about their moments on the stage becoming nothing more than a footnote?

Best Super Bowl Performances Ever

While we may always wonder about the answers to those questions, what we do know is that the aftermath to "Nipplegate" was truly wild—with far-reaching effects that may surprise you—and that Jackson's career (and only hers) took a hit that it never quite recovered from.

As the NFL and MTV both immediately tried to absolve themselves of any culpability for the moment that registered over 540,000 complaints with the Federal Communications Commission, Jackson's rep chalked it up to "a malfunction of the wardrobe; it was not intentional."

FCC Chairman Michael Powell called the moment "a classless, crass, and deplorable stunt" and vowed to take further action. With the game airing on CBS, the network's parent company Viacom (which also owns MTV) enacted revenge on Jackson for losing the music network all further halftime shows by essentially blacklisting her, keeping her music off MTV, VH1, and all radio stations under their corporate umbrella. Soon, non-Viacom media entities followed suit.

AP Photo/David Phillip, file

With the Grammys scheduled to air on CBS days later, Jackson's invitation to attend—she was due to present a Luther Vandross tribute—was rescinded. Timberlake, meanwhile, was still invited, and used one of his two acceptance speeches to apologize for the incident.

According to a 2018 Huffington Post report, published in the wake of former CBS CEO and chairman Les Moonves' downfall amid sexual harassment allegations, the powerful network head only allowed Timberlake to still attend and perform once he made a tearful apology to him for the incident. As the report alleged, Moonves was livid that Jackson didn't make the same contrite apology and he sought revenge, hence the blacklisting. 


While Jackson's album Damita Jo, released five weeks after the performance, would go on to be certified Platinum, the lack of airplay it and subsequent albums 20 Y.O. and Discipline received would, in fact, dampen their sales performance when compared to her career pre-Nipplegate. Meanwhile, Timberlake's career flourished, striking a nerve with Jackson fans who felt all of the blame had been unfairly placed solely on her shoulders.

Jackson agreed.

In a 2006 interview with Oprah Winfrey, she said, "I think they did put all the emphasis on me, as opposed to us." She explained to the talk show host that, despite Timberlake, whom she had both a professional and personal relationship with prior to the incident, reaching out to her, she still hadn't spoken to him. "Friendship is very important to me, and certain things you just don't do to friends. In my own time, I'll give him a call."

When Winfrey asked if she felt that Timberlake had left her "out there hanging," Jackson replied, "To a certain degree."

In 2018, Timberlake returned to the Super Bowl to headline that year's halftime show. Jackson, meanwhile, remains persona non grata. 


While CBS was hit with a $550,000 fine for the incident—the largest ever of its kind—by the FCC, the Third Circuit Court would rule in the network's favor in 2008, saying the FCC "acted arbitrarily and capriciously" by levying such a fine for what the Court deemed to be an accidental split-second of nudity. A year later, the Supreme Court would opt not to hear the case, sending it back to the Third Circuit for re-examination. By 2011, the Court had ruled again in CBS' favor.

In January 2014, Powell, who'd left his position as FCC chairman at this point, admitted that the committee acted "unfairly" toward Jackson, telling ESPN that the committee overreacted. "I personally thought that was really unfair. It all turned into being about her," he said. "In reality, if you slow the thing down, it's Justin ripping off her breastplate."

While the incident wreaked havoc on Jackson's career for years, there was at least one positive residual development from the whole mess. In the immediate aftermath, a young software programmer at PayPal named Jawed Karim, frustrated over his inability to find any video of the performance on the internet, teamed up with some friends to create a venue where people can easily upload and share video. And in 2005, YouTube was born.

Of course, Nipplegate's far from the only bit of controversy to go down when the big game goes into halftime. For a quick refresher on all the most eyebrow-raising moments from Super Bowls of days past, read on...

Not So Magical

The year was 1989, a time before the Super Bowl Halftime Show was handed over to superstar performers to do their thing. The act? An Elvis Presley impersonator and magician known as Elvis Presto who attempted the world's "largest card trick" that required audience participation from the thousands of fans in Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium as he crooned some of The King's greatest hits. As if the "Be-Bop Bamboozled" extravaganza wasn't odd enough, millions of sets of 3D glasses were distributed to viewers at home, but the technology proved to be not quite ready by showtime. Oops.

Indiana Jones and the Hot Mess

Disney has long been involved with producing various Super Bowl Halftime Shows, dating back to Super Bowl XI in 1977, when a theme of "It's a Small World" and a performance from the Los Angeles Unified All-City Band was enough to be considered a spectacle. But in 1995, they really missed the mark with their bizarre Indiana Jones-themed production. With the Indiana Jones Adventure ride due to open at Disneyland that March, the performance—complete with appearances from (inexplicably) Tony Bennett, Patti Labelle, Teddy Pendergrass and (more obviously) a low-rent Harrison Ford impersonator—amounted to nothing more than an misguided commercial for the theme park's newest attraction. You can relive all the ridiculousness here.

New Kids on the Block Get Bumped

The controversy with the Super Bowl XXV Halftime Show in 1991, a tribute to 25 years of the big game and yet another "Small World" theme courtesy of producer Disney, wasn't the inoffensive performance from New Kids on the Block and a group of 2,000 local children belting out cornball tracks like "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" and "It's a Small World After All." Rather, it was the fact that ABC News coverage of Operation Desert Storm bumped the performance from airing live, meaning that all audiences at home got when the game play took a break was an informative, yet grim newscast. The halftime show aired at the conclusion of the game, instead.

Red Hot Chili Peppers Unplugged

When headliner Bruno Mars brought out Red Hot Chili Peppers for some reason that never quite made sense to any of the rest of us during his performance at Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014, eagle-eyed fans realized one very glaring error: None of the bands' instruments were actually plugged in as they performed "Give It Away." Bassist Flea took to the band's website days later to explain that the trickery was done at the insistence of the NFL. "When we were asked by the NFL and Bruno to play our song 'Give It Away' at the Super Bowl, it was made clear to us that the vocals would be live, but the bass, drums, and guitar would be pre-recorded," he wrote. "I understand the NFL's stance on this, given they only have a few minutes to set up the stage, there a zillion things that could go wrong and ruin the sound for the folks watching in the stadium and the t.v. viewers. There was not any room for argument on this, the NFL does not want to risk their show being botched by bad sound, period."

Fergie Falls Flat

Years before she stunned audiences with her unique rendition of the National Anthem, Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie left some rock purists out in the cold when the group was joined by famed Guns 'n' Roses guitarist Slash during their headlining performance at Super Bowl XLV in 2011. She gave their classic track "Sweet Child O' Mine" her all, but for many watching, it wasn't exactly a match made in heaven. You can judge her performance for yourself here.

Prince and His...Guitar

No one had any issues with Prince's electric solo show during the Super Bowl XLI Halftime Show in 2007. Rather, it was this suggestive moment during his set's closing number, "Purple Rain," when he and his guitar's silhouette were displayed on a large, flowing sheet, that left us all wondering whether the unusually-shaped guitar was designed specifically to seem so phallic when held in such a way.

M.I.A. Goes Rogue

When Madonna was tapped as the headliner for the Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show in 2012, audiences watching at home got more than they bargained for when she brought out Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. to join her for their track "Give Me All Your Luvin." During M.I.A.'s verse, rather than singing the lyric "s--t," she extended her middle finger towards the camera. Madonna later called it "a teenager...irrelevant thing to do," while the NFL and NBC were quick to label the gesture "obscene" and "inappropriate." And nearly a year and a half later, it was revealed that the NFL had hit the singer with a $1.5 million dollar lawsuit about a month after the performance, which they followed up with a request for an additional $15.1 million in March of 2013—a lawsuit her lawyer told The Hollywood Reporter was "hilarious" in light of the NFL's less-than-stellar reputation. The suit was settled in August of 2014 and the terms of the settlement remain private to this day.

Left Shark Steals the Show

OK, so this one isn't as controversial as it was just plain ridiculous. Katy Perry's kitschy-cool performance during Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 was full of standout moments—our fave was and always will be Missy Elliott's surprise hijacking of the show with her hits "Work It" and "Lose Control"—but all anyone could talk about was Left Shark. During Perry's mid-set performance of "Teenage Dream," she was joined on stage by dancers in palm tree, beach ball and shark costumes. And, well, the shark on the left clearly forgot some of their choreography and went rogue. And thus, a meme was born. After the performance, as people began to try and sell some Left Shark merch, Perry's lawyers went after everyone like, well, sharks, claiming she owned the copyright to the costume.

Fury Over "Formation"

In 2013, Beyoncé delivered arguably one of the best Super Bowl Halftime Shows ever. When she returned three years later to give headliner Coldplay an assist and join fellow guest Bruno Mars in a dance-off, she found herself mired in controversy thanks to her performance of new single "Formation," which some on the right believed to be "anti-police," and her costume, a nod to the Black Panther Party. The hashtag #BoycottBeyoncé began trending and protesters planned an "anti-Beyoncé" rally for the morning of February 16 outside of NFL headquarters in New York City—a rally no one showed up to.

The Janet and Justin Debacle

In the end, though, nothing compares to Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" moment at the very end of the Super Bowl XXXVIII Halftime Show in 2004. Her bare breast was exposed to millions of viewers for all of 9/16ths of a second and the rest, as they say, was history.

(Originally published Feb. 1, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT.)